Suffolk Closeup: Educating the County

Edward Bonahue, Ph.D., a Suffolk County native, is the new president of Suffolk County Community College. With 25,000 students, Suffolk Community is the largest community college in the 64-college State University of New York system.

Raised in Setauket, Mr. Bonahue, is warm and affable, as was clear in a conversation I had with him recently. He is a seasoned college administrator, a scholar in English literature, and long a professor with a love for teaching.

“I would say I had a love for teaching after I got to graduate school, and I taught my first classes,” he told Compass News, the student newspaper at the college’s Ammerman Campus. “I think that’s where my love is … working with a class of students,” and with their learning, seeing “the light bulb” going off.

Both his parents were educators, teachers and guidance counselors in the Sachem School District. “I think from the standpoint of my family and the value that we’ve always had in education, I’m proud that just about everybody in my family has had something to do with public education over the years.”

The Ammerman Campus in Selden, the college’s main campus, is named for its first president, Albert Ammerman.

He came to Suffolk from Michigan where he had been dean of instruction at Dearborn Junior College and was a leader in the creation of Suffolk Community. Founded in 1959, it offered classes at Riverhead High School and Sachem High School in Ronkonkoma until the main campus opened in 1962.

With Suffolk County 86 miles in length, Mr. Ammerman started planning in the 1960s for what became the Eastern campus. It opened in Northampton, south of Riverhead, in 1977.

In the 1970s, when the state made land available at the edge of Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center in Brentwood, Mr. Ammerman worked on what became the Michael J. Grant Campus (named for a presiding officer of the Suffolk Legislature). It opened in 1974.

Mr. Bonahue, a graduate of Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, went off to Wake Forest University in North Carolina where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in English literature. Then he earned a Master’s Degree in English Language and Literature and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Literature, both from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

He became a professor at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, then chair of its Department of Humanities and Foreign Languages, then associate vice president for academic affairs and then provost and vice president for academic affairs, before returning to Suffolk County in May to take the helm of Suffolk Community.

“SUNY Suffolk is an outstanding college that changes students’ lives every day, and I look forward to being part of the Suffolk community,” he said upon his appointment.

The Compass News article related that Mr. Bonahue, “after being a professor for so many years … misses the interaction with students.” He commented: “‘One of the challenges of serving as the college president is always keeping the students’ experiences in mind; how is the student experiencing the college.’”

He spoke of trying to “get out on campus regularly to see what’s going on in the classrooms, buildings, labs, and so forth.”

The “three missions he would like to accomplish” as president of Suffolk Community was first increasing the number of students graduating. “We have learned,” he said, “that although we are a very large college, and we graduate far more students than any other SUNY community college, we could improve the graduation rate,” encouraging students to complete “their two-year degree and then transfer.”

Students who graduate with degrees are 50% more likely to go on and complete Bachelor’s Degrees. The second is “to ensure that the career-focused programs that Suffolk offers are closely aligned with the workforce needs of Suffolk County and Long Island.”

And a third involves how Suffolk is changing. “In 2010, the minority population of Suffolk County was 28%. By 2020, that minority percentage increased to 36%. Largely growth in our Hispanic communities, a little growth in our African American communities, some growth in our Asian American communities.”

He said he wanted to see this diversity reflected in the college’s student body under “equity,” providing “the support that makes you feel at home, gives you a sense that you belong, allows you to connect with a sense of community.”

“I think I’m a good match for Suffolk County Community College,” said Mr. Bonahue, “because a lot of what I learned about higher education came from the classroom. And so in my heart of hearts, I like to keep that mission of student learning and student success first.”